Noughts and Crosses

I remembered reading the novel Noughts and Crosses by Malorie Blackman when I was younger and thoroughly enjoying it, so I was thrilled to hear it was being adapted into a six part BBC series, particularly since it had been a while since I read it so felt like I was going into it with fresh eyes. The story takes place in a dystopian world where Aprica (or as we know it, Africa) colonised Albion (equivalent to Britain), which is now a partially segregated society made up of the ruling black crosses and the oppressed white noughts.

The show aims to explore race politics and demonstrate the injustice black people face within our society by flipping the roles and power dynamic of white and black people. The most obvious example of this is the depiction of police brutality against the noughts. They are frequently thrown up against police vans or to the ground whilst having the slur ‘blanker’ spat at them.

Another brutal example of the discrimination experienced by the noughts is within the wider justice system. The series shows us how the noughts are faced with far harsher sentences, and then treated so much worse once they are inevitably put in prison. The courts are not there to provide justice for the noughts, they are there to punish them, and this could not be made clearer than through the treatment of the noughts once they are inside prison.

However, beyond the blatant discriminatory behaviours, the aspects of the show that I found more interesting were the far more subtle examples of the power of the crosses permeating society. Examples of this that I found most intriguing were how the noughts in the army have their hair corn-rowed, as is required as part of the military dress-code, Sephy (a cross) giving Callum (a nought) a plaster that doesn’t match his skin tone, and only ever seeing crosses on the tv in the background of scenes. It is these subtler nuances of the show, rather than the bigger acts of racism, that make the world seem so realistic and draws a true parallel between this fictional dystopia and the real world we live in.

The main way in which the story deviates from our world today, however, is in the criminalisation of interracial relationships, which brings us to the main plot point that draws us into the show; the illegal relationship between Sephy and Callum. The two met and became friends as children because Callum’s mother, Meggie, works as a housekeeper for Sephy’s parents and she would often bring Callum to work with her during the school holidays. When the two run into each other at a party where Callum is working and Sephy is socialising they develop a romantic relationship, and become the star-crossed lovers at the centre of the show.

Unfortunately, not only is this illegal, placing Callum in significant danger if their relationship is discovered, but Sephy’s failure to understand Callum’s life and the way society, and the ruling crosses, treat him continually proves to be a source of conflict for their relationship. No matter how good her intentions are, Sephy repeatedly fails to consider how certain experiences may be different for Callum, particularly with regard to how authority figures and organisations treat him. Their relationship is an excellent representation of how, even when making a conscious effort, there will always be things that the privileged overlook when it comes to the experiences of the oppressed.

Finally, the depiction of the two mothers in the show is also particularly noteworthy. Watching their relationship to one another and how they aim to prioritise the welfare of their children is incredibly insightful. Whilst you cannot fault Jasmine’s concern for Sephy, her treatment of Meggie when under pressure always highlights how those in power are prepared to sacrifice those without it in the name of protecting those close to them.

This leads to an intelligent and brilliantly told story of structural racism with the deliberate intention of making the viewer uncomfortable.  I would definitely recommend to anyone that they watch this show.

The Testaments

Margaret Atwood

I have been looking forward to reading the widely anticipated sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale ever since I first heard about it so my expectations were high, and I was not disappointed.

The story takes place 15 years after the previous novel and gives us a lot more insight into the inner workings of Gilead. The book follows the lives of Aunt Lydia, the only character brought forward from the first book, Agnes, a girl who is born into and grows up in Gilead as a fully formed society and knows nothing of what society was like before, and Daisy, a teenage girl living in Canada.

The book being written from three different perspectives is an intelligent way for Atwood to provide us with a greater understanding of Gilead and nuances of it. Where the first book focuses entirely on the life of a handmaid, only giving us minimal understanding of the lives of other women who aren’t handmaids, this book flips that on its head and spends very little time concerned with the handmaids.

Instead we spend most of our time in Gilead focused on the lives of the aunts, finding out how Aunt Lydia ended up where she is, how she lives in Gilead and what the purpose of the aunts is. I particularly enjoyed this aspect of the book because Aunt Lydia is presented almost as a villain in the first novel and so to be able to understand who she was before Gilead, how she gained her position in society and what her motivations are was fascinating.

Similarly, to see what it is like to be born into Gilead, as Agnes is, was incredibly interesting because she has no knowledge of what society was like and therefore, doesn’t understand why women in the rest of world may believe things contrary to the doctrine of Gilead. The perspective Agnes has of the world also felt fairly juvenile to me which I did not expect because although she is a young child at the start of the book, by the end she is an adult and yet because she lacks so much understanding of the world outside Gilead she possesses a naivety that makes her seems almost child-like even as an adult.

The only issue I found with the changing perspectives throughout the novel was that it was at times slightly confusing to read. This is particularly prevalent at the start of the book because you are still getting to know the characters of Agnes and Daisy, so I found myself getting the two confused at points, forgetting who was who. This confusion was also increased by the chapters not alternating equally, with the book sometimes spending three or four chapters on Aunt Lydia before returning to the others.

However, once you have a clearer idea of each of the characters, this book really comes alive. Finding out about the true power dynamics within Gilead, once you go beyond the surface level perception that men have all the power, was intriguing and greatly added a level of suspense at crucial points in the story, which was enhanced by the switching perspectives which always left you desperate to find out what was going to happen to each woman.

My one difficulty of this novel was that I found that the plot progressed quite slowly. The pacing of this sequel is very similar to the original novel where the plot progression only picks up as you are coming to end of the book. Although I can recognise that this is an intelligent stylistic choice on the part of Atwood given the topic of the novel, I personally find it slightly slow going and with both books felt a slight lull in my motivation just before the plot all comes together.

Having said that, this in no way takes away from my enjoyment of this novel, which presents a world that feels scarily possible and yet so dystopian. This a genuine masterpiece of a novel.

Only Ever Yours

Louise O’Neill

Louise O’Neill quickly became one of my favourite authors after reading her novels Asking for It and The Surface Breaks and so I was thrilled that her debut novel, Only Ever Yours, did not disappoint.

The book is told from the perspective of Frieda, an eve entering her final year at school and struggling to hold up under the pressure to be perfect in order to be chosen as a companion. The book follows Frieda’s desperate attempts to remain ranked in the top 10 eves whilst her friendship with Isabel, who is buckling under the pressure, slowly fractures.

O’Neill writes with an intelligent severity that creates a world in which you can find nothing good and yet cannot stop reading. She generates a hope for a happy ending that you ultimately know is never possible.

She beautifully creates female characters so far removed from the heroines we so often seen that are kind, pure and, above all, good. In all her books, O’Neill focuses on young women trapped by their flaws of selfishness or jealousy, generated by a society that tells them that their value is limited to their beauty.

However, what is truly remarkable about her novels, is that despite the lack of likeable qualities she gives her characters, O’Neill never fails to make you sympathise with them because of the trauma they experience.

I will admit that at the start this was my least favourite of O’Neill’s novels, however this could have easily been because it was the first YA novel I’ve read in a while and so it took me slightly longer to get used to writing style or it may have been because this was her first novel, either way after a few chapters I was thoroughly engrossed in the book.

Frieda’s desperation and intense loneliness is beautifully conveyed, but what is truly fascinating is how convincingly O’Neill creates a world in which it is true that no cares about her. In contrast to our world where the response people with a state of mind like Frieda’s is to tell the individual how loved they are and to help them see their own worth, as eve every fear of Frieda’s is constantly reinforced for her. In this world it is true that no one really cares what happens to her, except Isabel, and it is true that worth is solely found in her appearance.

I would describe this book as being somewhere between Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale and Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games. As the reader you are thrust into an unknown dystopian world reminiscent of Atwood’s novel, but the YA style and teenage protagonists feel closer to Collins’ trilogy. I would absolutely recommend this to anyone looking for a YA novel with overtly dark edge to it.